Between Fast and Sustainable Fashion: The Attitude of Young Lithuanian Designers to the Circular Economy

The origin of the zero-waste philosophy is Pythagoras, who put forward the idea of a harmonious world with repeating cycles.

Although the circular economy is not associated with the philosophy of zero waste, we can find connections by linking zero-waste philosophy with the cyclical nature of the circular economy in order to minimize the impact on the environment. According to the Pythagoreans, the development of the world is cyclic, while its aspects of harmony are both the repetitive movement of the heavenly bodies and the circle of human life. Later, this attitude was developed by Plato [1,2], who reasoned about the soul of the world in search of the source of good (harmonious) movement. These ideas allowed Plato to solve the problem of evil. One of the pillars of this theology (developed by St. Augustine 1961 [3]) is Plato’s doctrine of methexis, whereas Christianity rejects his idea of pantheism. However, these ideas were later developed by Spinoza (2012) [4], Hegel (2018) [5], Thoreau (1995) [6], and others [7,8].

The practical attitude of sustainable behavior is presupposed by two theories of the integral world and an individual in it. First, recognizing the world as our home without distinguishing between inside and outside, we cannot destroy it with our activities. Secondly, our activity cycles mirror the cycles of world development, which cannot be disturbed by our selfish goals. Thus, the idea of zero waste, including in the sphere of fashion, is the result of our free and responsible decision about our participation in the development of the world. The role of each of us is greater the more we realize that it is vanishingly small.

Modern life seems inseparable from growing consumption. Along with fast food restaurants and eateries, “fast” fashion has also emerged [9]. The impact of the growing volume of textile products on the earth and humanity is rarely thought about. According to Niinimaeki et al. (2020) [10], the textile industry is the second largest polluter of the 21st century (after aviation). The EEA Briefing Report (2019) [11] shows that textile products rank fourth in terms of the amount of primary raw materials and water consumed (after food, housing, and transport), and fifth in terms of the amount of greenhouse gas emissions. The textile industry is associated with at least 10 percent of global pollution [12,13,14]. This situation is associated with so-called fast fashion, and with the tendency to create new fashion collections for single seasons. Eco-Business (2017) [15] and Teerawattananon et al. (2021) [16] point out that fast fashion is characterized by cheapness and rapid change of assortment and supply to consumers, therefore, fast fashion is associated with increased resource consumption figures, low processing, and a short wearing time of the garment. The problems of the textile industry are also related to problems of processing and secondary recycling. According to the Ellen McArthur Foundation (2017) [17], it is estimated that less than 1% of all textiles worldwide are recycled into new textiles.

The textile industry and the fashion industry are considered to be industrial sectors that cause a lot of environmental problems and use a lot of resources [18]. For example, globally, 20% of industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing and processing [19]. In a linear system, this industry sector uses the most non-renewable resources, “a total of 98 million per year including oil for the production of synthetic fibers, fertilizers for growing cotton and chemicals for the production, dyeing and finishing of fibers and textiles” [17]. Barber (2021) [20] states that the clothing industry has grown by more than 400 percent in the last 40 years, and this is all related to the enormous use of various natural and chemical industrial resources and so-called fast fashion, where the consumer devotes more and more income to buying clothes and less and less time to wearing them [21]. Peleg, Mizrachi, and Tal (2022) [22] said that by 2030, the textile industry will use more and more land resources and areas for fiber production. Ütebay et al. (2020) [23] indicate that only one percent of used clothing is recycled. The increasing levels of resource use and pollution in the textile industry indicate that the principles of a sustainable, circular economy are crucial for this industry. It should also be remembered that the textile industry is associated with the exploitation of child labor throughout the world. While a UNICEF report [24] says that child labor and human exploitation in the textile industry have improved over the past 20 years, the industry remains extremely problematic. This is not just when it comes to fast fashion [25]. Luxury fashion brands usually destroy their unsold collections by burning them. Napier & Sanguineti (2018) [26] report that more than 600 million tons of new textiles are burned or otherwise destroyed each year.

Fast fashion brands are taking sustainable development initiatives and some fast fashion brands will likely choose circular economy principles in the future. For example, one of the well-known fast fashion brands, H&M, has been inviting consumers to participate in a clothing recycling program that allows them to return unwanted clothes in exchange for a discount since 2013. This company suffered losses in 2018 when it got into a situation where the products were not sold out on time. It had to offer extremely large discounts to consumers and, at the same time, offer newly manufactured textile products [27].

Napier & Sanguineti (2018) [20,26] and Peleg, Mizrachi, and Tal (2022) [22] believe that the need for change in the fashion industry is partly inspired by the growing honesty of consumers and their tendency to choose sustainable products. Therefore, the future and development of the textile industry must be linked to a circular economy, as an opportunity to pollute the planet less and meet the changing needs of consumers.

The movement of fast fashion towards the concept of sustainable fashion has been increasingly analyzed. A special shift for this movement according to Yoon et al. (2020) [28] was sparked by the 2013 disaster known today as the Rana Plaza incident, when over 1000 tailors died in a sewing factory. Shortly after this event, the Fashion Revolution Movement [29] was formed, which began to pay special attention to uncovering the problematic activities of the textile industry and the fashion industry and informing the public.

Dissanayake and Weerasinghe (2021) [30] found that the adoption of a circular economy approach by fashion companies could help to reduce emissions by up to 30%. The study found that the potential benefits of a circular economy could be maximized if fashion companies invest in renewable energy sources, reuse materials, and extend the lifespan of clothing. Another study, conducted by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation [31], found that the fashion industry could reduce its environmental impact by up to 60% by 2030. The study suggested that one way to do this would be for fashion companies to invest in new technologies, such as digital printing, which can reduce the amount of water and chemicals used in the production process. Finally, some researchers [32] found that the fashion industry could reduce its emissions by up to 50% by 2030 if companies prioritize the use of sustainable materials and invest in renewable energy sources. The study also recommended that companies implement initiatives such as leasing or renting clothing instead of selling it, etc.

Other studies have explored potential solutions for the fashion industry to become more sustainable. For example, Wu et al. [33] stated that the use of renewable materials could reduce the industry’s environmental footprint by up to 90%. Additionally, a study conducted by the World Resources Institute in 2021 [34] found that the fashion industry could reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by up to 40% by 2030 if companies adopt new technologies, such as 3D printing. Finally, a study by the European Commission [35] resented the idea that the fashion industry could reduce its water use by up to 70% by 2030 if companies switch to more water-efficient production methods. This article analyzes the transition to a circular economy, although solutions for the implementation of the blue economy are currently being studied around the world. Some research showed that the textile and apparel industry demonstrates higher criticality concerning the problems of marine litter, eutrophication, and contaminants (including contaminants in seafood) [36].

Recently, numerous small and medium enterprises founded by young designers have been operating and emerging in Lithuania, operating in the field of both fast fashion and sustainable fashion.

The aim of this article is to evaluate the attitude of young Lithuanian designers towards the implementation of circular economy principles in the fashion industry. To achieve this goal, the following structure of the article was chosen: in Section 2, the literature review of circular economy principles and barriers in the fashion industry is given; in Section 3 the data and methods are provided. The results of the empirical research are presented in Section 4. Section 5 is dedicated to discussion of the empirical study results in light of other studies analyzed. Conclusions and limits of the study are provided, including future research guidelines, in Section 6.

The Circular Economy in the Fashion Industries: Some Theoretical Insights

In general, the notion of a circular economy is given a lot of attention. The European Union has set a goal to move to a circular economy by 2050. The European Commission’s Circular Economy Action Plan, launched in 2015, was the first step toward achieving this goal [37]. This plan aims to make the EU economy more circular by promoting resource efficiency, reducing resource consumption, and creating a new production and consumption model. The plan includes several initiatives and measures to achieve these goals, such as increasing the use of recycled materials, promoting the reuse of products and components, and introducing new incentives for companies to promote a circular economy [38]. The EU has also created a Resource Efficiency Scoreboard to monitor the progress of its circular economy initiatives. This scoreboard provides up-to-date information on the performance of the EU’s circular economy policies and measures [39]. Fashion industries have long used, and some of them still use, a linear production model.

Wautelet (2018) [40] sees the linear production model as one characterized by thinking that resources and the earth’s regenerative capacity are infinite, so it is possible to take infinite resources from the environment, create new products and waste them or, in other words, not care about what remains or is emitted into the atmosphere during the production and consumption processes. The principle of linear production develops in three stages: resources, production, and pollution. Meanwhile, the principle stages of a circular economy are resources, production, and regeneration [41,42]. The movement of fashion industries towards a circular economy is driven by changing consumer needs [43,44], by global agreements [45] (United Nations, 2023), and by EU sustainable development strategies and action plans [37,38,39].

When it comes to the principles of a circular economy, studies in the fashion industry show that attention must be focused on changing the value chain. In the value creation chain, cooperation with partners (changing management of the supply chain), innovation, reorganization of the waste management system, changing communication with customers, and changing the utilization model become important factors [46]. Therefore, following the principles of a circular economy (3Rs—reduce, reuse, recycle), it is necessary to change or adjust the existing business model [44,47]. A business model that is characterized by circular economy principles must include the search for new partners, the introduction of innovations, changing the waste management system, and other elements. Koszewska (2018) [48] believes that, first of all, when the fashion industry is moving to the principles of a circular economy, it is important for all stakeholders (suppliers, manufacturers, sellers, consumers) to be aware of sustainable fashion, to be involved in it, and to have knowledge about sustainable fashion.

The fashion industry is beginning to realize the potential of circular economy principles to reduce waste and increase efficiency. By introducing circular economy principles to the industry, fashion companies can create a closed-loop system in which resources are reused over and over again without generating much waste. Examples of applying circular economy in the fashion industry include using regenerated materials, such as yarns made from recycled plastic, and moving to rental and sharing models [49,50,51]. In addition, the use of digital technologies can help to reduce fashion waste and increase the efficiency of production and distribution [49]. By incorporating circular economy principles, fashion companies can reduce environmental impacts while creating economic value.

Thus, the fashion industry is no stranger to the concept of a circular economy. In recent years, the industry has seen an increase in research on the topic, with studies examining how best to implement the principles of a circular economy in the fashion industry. According to Arnold et al. (2022) [52], the main strategies used by fashion companies to implement circular economy principles are circular models, product life extension, reuse and rental services, and upcycling. Kirsi Niinimäki (2015) [53] found that the main challenges to implementing a circular economy in the fashion industry include the lack of infrastructure and technological capabilities, the need to change consumer behavior, and the need for greater regulation and incentives. Dragomir and Dumitru (2022) [54] took their study a step further and examined the development of circular economy models in the fashion industry using a sustainable business model. Their research found that companies must engage with stakeholders, rethink the design stage, and think about the auditing and certification processes to develop effective and sustainable circular business models.

Overall, research on the implementation of circular economy principles in the fashion industry has shown that the industry has the potential to become more sustainable and reduce its environmental impact. To understand the operating principles of sustainable fashion and the circular economy, we need to analyze the manufacturers, fashion designers (designers), and consumers.

The fashion industry is quickly becoming a leader in the implementation of a circular economy, a concept that focuses on the reuse and recycling of materials and products to maximize their lifecycle potential. It is also quickly beginning to understand that circular economy is an alternative to the traditional linear economy (which involves a “take-produce-dispose” model of production and consumption) and is very important.

The circular economy in the fashion industry has the potential to bring numerous benefits to the industry. The most obvious benefit is the potential to reduce the environmental impact of the fashion industry. By adopting a circular model, the industry will be able to reduce its reliance on new materials and environmentally harmful production processes. In addition, a circular economy has the potential to reduce the amount of waste generated by the fashion industry and to reduce the energy and resources required for production. This economical model also has the potential to reduce production costs, as recycled and reused materials cost less than new materials. Finally, a circular economy has the potential to create jobs and strengthen local economies, as the use of locally sourced materials and the reuse of materials and products will require more skilled labor and create more economic opportunities.

However, several challenges must be overcome before a circular economy can be successfully implemented in the fashion industry. One of the biggest challenges is the lack of awareness and acceptance of the circular economy model among consumers [46,55].

Consumers have become accustomed to the traditional linear economy and may be reluctant to adopt the circular economy model. In addition, the fashion industry is highly competitive, with brands vying for consumers’ attention and loyalty. This competition can make it difficult to convince consumers to buy circularly produced fashion items [55].

The circular economy model allows the implementation of environmental targets for sustainable development by ensuring sustainable production and consumption. Another challenge is finding the right balance between sustainability and profitability. While a circular economy has the potential to reduce costs, it is still necessary to ensure that products are profitable. Finally, the challenge is to find suitable materials and products for reuse and recycling.

Despite these challenges, there are several opportunities for the fashion industry to embrace a circular economy. One of the most promising opportunities is the development of new technologies that facilitate the reuse and recycling of materials and products. For example, new technologies such as 3D printing and blockchain could enable the fashion industry to create unique one-of-a-kind pieces from recycled materials. In addition, the fashion industry could benefit from increased collaboration with other industries to develop innovative products and services. For example, partnerships with the automotive industry could lead to the development of innovative upcycling and recycling techniques.

The fashion industry could also benefit from increased investment in research and development to better understand the potential of a circular economy and how it can best be implemented.

In summary, a circular economy has the potential to bring numerous benefits to the fashion industry, from reducing environmental impacts to creating economic opportunities. However, there are several challenges that must be overcome before the circular economy can be successfully implemented. Despite the challenges, there are several opportunities for the fashion industry to embrace a circular economy, from developing new technologies to increasing collaboration and investment in research and development. It is clear that a circular economy has the potential to revolutionize the fashion industry, and it is important that the industry takes the necessary steps to ensure its successful implementation [56].

It can be said that there are many business models and practical tips on how to develop a circular economy in the fashion industry. However, our focus is on exactly how circular economy models are developed and can be developed by new players in the fashion industry, designers in particular. Analyzing the case of Lithuania, it can be observed that large textile industry companies established in the market invest a lot in a circular economy and create sustainable fashion. For example, “Utenos trikotažas” [57], a company that is the first company in the world to fully comply with the Greenpeace environmental standards. It develops a circular economy model in its activities. It uses zero-waste philosophy, 100% green energy, does not use toxic substances in production, produces only to order, and applies other sustainability initiatives. The social business platform “Textale” [58] is also successfully developing its activities, among which it offers to collect and resell unworn fashionable clothes. Alongside these examples, many new small- and medium-sized fashion designer companies are being created. These companies are much less likely to declare sustainability, social responsibility, and implementation of circular economy principles. Most of the time, these companies do not have physical stores and they sell their products using technology, the internet, and social network platforms. Not all of these companies have their own website, so it is very difficult to determine if and which circular economy principles they follow. Therefore, our article is focused on understanding the goals of sustainable development of young, new fashion creators, designers, and their knowledge of the principles of the circular economy.

According to studies [59,60], designers are increasingly becoming aware of the importance of circularity in fashion, as the industry is one of the most polluting in the world. The traditional linear production model of “make, use, dispose” is no longer sustainable and is responsible for the large amounts of clothing waste generated every year. Designers are now looking for ways to reduce their environmental impact, and circular economy models are a great way to do this. This approach allows for a closed-loop system, where materials are kept in circulation for as long as possible, while still providing value to customers. Designers are beginning to see the potential of circular models and are exploring ways to incorporate them into their production processes [61].

The first step in creating a circular economy model is to reduce the use of new materials. Designers can do this by using sustainable, recycled, or upcycled materials whenever possible. This is not only good for the environment, but it can also help to reduce costs and increase profits. Additionally, designers can look for ways to extend the life of their products, such as offering repair services or lifetime warranties. This allows customers to keep their products for longer, reducing the need for new products and reducing waste. Designers are also exploring ways to upcycle old materials into new fashion items. Conducted research shows that the chain of sustainable fashion development depends on how fashion designers perceive sustainable development [62,63,64].

Companies such as Nike and H&M have started using recycled materials for their products, creating stylish and sustainable items. Upcycling is a great way to reduce the amount of waste generated, as well as to create unique and interesting items that customers will love. Finally, designers are encouraging customers to participate in a circular economy. Companies such as Patagonia and Eileen Fisher have started programs that allow customers to return used items for repair, reuse, or recycling. This is a great way to keep items in circulation and reduce waste. Additionally, companies such as Rent the Runway and Le Tote offer rental services that allow customers to access high-end fashion items without having to buy them. This reduces the amount of clothing waste generated and encourages customers to consider sustainable fashion choices. Overall, designers are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of circular economy models in fashion [65]. By reducing the use of new materials, upcycling old materials, and encouraging customers to participate in circular economies, designers can help to reduce fashion’s environmental impact and create products that are both stylish and sustainable.

Summarizing the performed theoretical analysis, it is possible to single out essential factors that should be considered in the fashion industry in order to move to circular economy principles and sustainable fashion: designers, fashion creators, the company’s awareness of sustainable development, the motivation for creating sustainable fashion, knowledge of circular economy principles (sustainable business models, opportunities and barriers). All of these (philosophy of sustainability and sustainable action) must go through a process of understanding and management of fashion’s environmental impact, social impact, economic impact, supply chain transparency, materials and textile sourcing, manufacturing processes, waste reduction strategies, consumer education, marketing practices, recycling, and upcycling.

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